By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons actually have a shot at a winning streak.
Ditto for the Detroit Lions, who haven’t won back-to-back games in more than a year.
At the moment, that’s the sole focus for these struggling teams.
Two in a row.
“I stopped looking at the standings about three weeks ago,” Falcons running back Todd Gurley said with a chuckle.
Atlanta (1-5) began its season with five straight losses, the first team in NFL history to lose consecutive games after leading by at least 15 points in the fourth quarter.
That led to the firing of coach Dan Quinn, who was replaced on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.
The Falcons responded to the coaching change with an impressive 40-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Coming off a bye week, the Lions (2-3) romped to a 34-16 victory at Jacksonville.
The Lions haven’t had a winning streak since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2019 season.
“That’s good for everybody just to have a little bit of confidence in some of the things we were doing and be able to see it and honestly see what I would call ‘two weeks of work’ really show up in a game,” Detroit’s Matt Patricia said.
Mimicking the Falcons, Detroit squandered leads of 17, 14 and 11 points in its three losses.
The bye week provided a chance to reset.
“We thought it was a really good time for us to grind it out and really take a look at the first four games,” Patricia said.
Both teams can cling to the hope that better days are ahead. The Lions are heading into what appears to be the easier part of their schedule, while the last-place Falcons have played only one game against NFC South opponents.
The Lions may be moving toward the realization that rookie D’Andre Swift deserves the lead role in the backfield over 35-year-old Adrian Peterson, one of the great runners in NFL history.
Swift went for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars, including a 54-yard burst that was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.
EAST LANSING (AP) — Michigan high school winter sports will start on time in November.
Face coverings are required for athletes practicing and competing in basketball, competitive cheer, hockey and wrestling, the Michigan High School Athletic Association said Friday after its Representative Council confirmed this a day earlier.
They are not required for athletes in bowling, gymnastics, skiing and swimming unless the players are on the sideline and not actively participating.
Sport-specific guidelines will be posted next week on the MHSAA website at https://www.mhsaa.com/sports.
“But let’s be clear: Our statewide COVID-19 numbers have to get better,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “In order for our schools to continue playing sports this winter, and in order for fans to be there to cheer them on, we must continue working to slow down this virus.”
The state health department reported 1,826 new confirmed coronavirus cases Friday and 18 deaths.
“People have started to develop some pandemic fatigue. People are letting their guards down,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, chief clinical officer at Henry Ford Health System, adding that masks are critical.
He said Henry Ford had nearly 100 COVID-19 patients Friday at its hospitals in southeastern Michigan. It had 32 on Sept. 21 but hundreds more earlier in the pandemic.
While the number of infections has been rising, “We have not seen a similar commensurate increase in the number of admissions,” Munkarah said, noting that younger people have been getting infected.
As with fall sports, scrimmages will not be allowed for winter sports to limit mixing of communities outside of official competitions, the MHSAA noted.
The numbers of teams at regular-season competitions also will be limited, like during fall, with a maximum of four schools or teams allowed in competitive cheer, gymnastics, swimming and diving, and wrestling. Bowling and skiing competitions will be restricted to a maximum of 72 competitors at one event.
There are no school or team limits for basketball and hockey, the MHSAA said, as only two teams are able to play each other at one time and those sports may play only one game per day — with fans leaving after their game is complete.
Host sites must strictly enforce spectator capacity limits on a game-by-game basis, according to the MHSAA. The Representative Council approved as part of these guidelines an allowance of two spectators per participant at all contests to begin the regular season.
This guideline could be reconsidered by the council later in the winter season, with a possibility of allowing more spectators later while still staying within possible emergency orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
ALLEN PARK (AP) — The Detroit Lions put rookie defensive end Julian Okwara on injured reserve Wednesday and signed free agent cornerback Chris Jones.
Okwara limped off the field with a leg injury in Sunday’s victory at Jacksonville.
The Lions also announced Wednesday that defensive end Austin Bryant, currently on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, was returning to practice.
The Lions play at Atlanta on Sunday.
By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS — Michigan hasn’t left Minnesota with a loss since 1977.
This time, the only fans in the seats will be family members of the players, drastically reducing the disadvantage for the visitors.
This is a much different Gophers team than most of those that wilted in the past against the Wolverines, though. This pivotal sixth season with coach Jim Harbaugh for the storied program will finally begin in difficult fashion at No. 21 Minnesota on Saturday night.
Long before the 18th-ranked Wolverines can worry about that next swing at rival Ohio State, they must contend with the Gophers, who won 11 games last season, a mark that Michigan hasn’t hit since 2011. The Wolverines will again boast a stout defensive line and a deep group of running backs, but there’s plenty to prove in order to end their 16-year drought without a Big Ten title.
“I’ve never seen any team I’ve been a part of here come together as much as we have,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “I’m ready to show everybody how good we actually are.”
The Gophers got a lot better when star wide receiver Rashod Bateman had his eligibility reinstated last month, after he initially opted out of the season due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The connection between him and quarterback Tanner Morgan ought to be one of the best in the conference, if not the country.
“Tanner has just grown as a leader throughout this whole quarantine,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said. “He has really good control of this whole team.”
Michigan junior quarterback Joe Milton is expected to make his first start, hoping four new starting offensive linemen can give him enough time to throw to an inexperienced group of receivers.
“He’s made a lot of great strides,” Harbaugh said. “Really good command of the offense and savviness — and a lot of talent.”
Dylan McCaffrey, the brother of Carolina Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, decided not to return for a fourth year after falling behind Milton on the depth chart. The 6-foot-5, strong-armed Milton played sparingly as a backup the previous two seasons behind Shea Patterson.
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
Mel Tucker is starting a new challenge at Michigan State. Greg Schiano is resuming an old one at Rutgers.
With so much change this past offseason, neither coach necessarily knows what to expect in Saturday’s opener.
“As I keep telling the team, whether you’re ready or not, we’re going to kick the ball off at noon and we need to be ready,” Schiano said. “As we get into game week now, I mean, this is it. This is why you coach.”
The Spartans host the Scarlet Knights in a matchup between programs that could use a jolt. MSU accomplished a lot during Mark Dantonio’s tenure, but the team slipped over the past few seasons and Dantonio retired in February. The Spartans hired Tucker away from Colorado.
“This is the time of the season when you start to get those text messages from your colleagues and friends and family, wishing you all the best for the first game and wishing you all the best for the season,” Tucker said. “I reflect on my mentors and people that have had a positive impact on my life on a daily basis.”
At the end of Schiano’s first stint as coach from 2001-11, Rutgers went to six bowl games in seven years. Now he’s back, and some fans are hoping he picks up right where he left off before he became an NFL coach.
That won’t be easy. He’s taking over a program that has won three games over the past two years.
“I remember growing up in New Jersey and my grandfather used to take me to the games and everything. Just having Coach Schiano back means a lot,” linebacker Tyshon Fogg said. “It’s a lot of motivation for the guys playing for him.”
Michigan State has won 21 consecutive home openers. Only Florida (31), Oklahoma State (25), Wisconsin (24) and Illinois (22) have longer streaks.
By TIM REYNOLDS
and BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writers
Stan Van Gundy is headed to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he’ll take over a promising team that includes 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson and reigning Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram.
Van Gundy agreed to a four-year contract, said a person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the terms had not been revealed publicly.
The coach said on his Twitter account Wednesday that he was “excited to join a talented New Orleans Pelicans team” and thanked team owner Gayle Benson and others for the opportunity.
“It will be an honor to work with our players and to work for Mrs. Benson and David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, their staff and the great people of New Orleans,” Van Gundy wrote. “I can’t wait to talk to our players and get the process started.”
Among the players he’ll talk to is veteran locker-room leader JJ Redick, who spent his second through sixth NBA seasons playing for Van Gundy in Orlando. Redick has readily credited Van Gundy for helping him develop into a reliable double-digit scorer.
“In terms of intangibles and characteristics I think any NBA player should have, I think he taught me those things and he reinforced those things in me — professionalism, accountability … not taking any nights off, all that stuff, because he lives that,” Redick said of Van Gundy in 2016, when he played for the Los Angeles Clippers and Van Gundy was coaching Detroit. “I see how hard he works, how much he invests in his craft, and so as a player, playing for him, you really have no choice but to do the same.”
In New Orleans, Van Gundy will replace another former Pistons coach, Alvin Gentry, who was let go after the Pelicans missed this season’s playoffs.
Van Gundy, 61, is a seasoned coach with a more traditional and direct style of communicating with players.
Van Gundy spent parts of 12 seasons coaching Miami, Orlando and Detroit, winning 58% of his games and going to the playoffs eight times.
His four seasons in Detroit were largely a struggle — three losing seasons, the best year in that run being a 44-38 season where the Pistons got swept from the playoffs.
By STEVE BROWNLEE
Journal Sports Editor
EAST LANSING — The MHSAA has outlined some changes in procedures for the high school football playoffs that begin on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 30-31.
The biggest change this season is that nearly every team — it will be all of them in 11-player and the vast majority in eight-player — is eligible for the playoffs.
It also means that each of those sports’ playoff schedules will last a week longer, placing the eight-player finals the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving and 11-player during the first weekend of December.
The MHSAA hasn’t announced sites for state championship games, which for 11-player have always been played at the home of the Detroit Lions — originally the Silverdome in Pontiac before switching to Ford Field in Detroit — and for 8-player were moved to the Superior Dome in Marquette in 2017.
It will also bring byes into play for a small handful of 11-player teams, as the MHSAA lists 507 teams to fit into the 512 slots of the expanded field, according to the MHSAA website, www.mhsaa.com.
That was a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that halted the season before it restarted after Labor Day, resulting in a six-week season — at most — for teams.
Another change had taken place before the pandemic struck. Teams were placed into divisions before the season began, rather than being decided after the playoff field was established.
In addition, the older playoff points system was reintroduced in an effort to give schools an incentive to play quality opponents. For the past two decades since the 11-player playoffs had last been expanded, six-win teams were just about guaranteed to make the playoffs, regardless of how few or how many wins their opponents had.
Some other changes include the MHSAA not holding a Selection Sunday show on Fox Sports Detroit the weekend before the start of the playoffs, since every 11-player team makes it this year, according to a Tuesday email from the group.
In eight-player, 64 teams qualify for two divisions of playoffs out of a total of 84 listed by the MHSAA on its website.
When pairings are released on Sunday, information on purchasing tickets digitally and attendance limits will be included. Actual game dates and times will be made official on Monday.
If teams withdraw from the playoffs before final matchups are released, those brackets will be reseeded, but for withdrawals that come after that, forfeits will be awarded to teams assigned to play a team dropping out.
Teams must have played four games to be eligible for the playoffs, though waivers for that can be granted by the MHSAA. Both games played and forfeits — won or lost — count toward the four-game total.
Here are the divisions and regions that each area team has been assigned to. The district round will constitute the first three weeks of the 11-player playoffs.
The full listing is available online at www.mhsaa.com/portals/0/documents/FB/2020/2020%20Districts%2009-25-2020.pdf.
Negaunee’s prospects for playing in the playoffs look iffy as it has suspended extracurricular activities, including sports, until Nov. 2:
Marquette — Division 3 (enrollment of 818 to 1,145), Region 9, District 17. Other teams in the district are Petoskey, Gaylord, Cedar Springs, Mount Pleasant, Greenville, Muskegon and Muskegon Reeths-Puffer.
Westwood and Negaunee — Division 6 (enrollment 367-452), Region 21, District 41. Other district teams are Gladstone, Menominee, Houghton, Calumet and Gogebic (only 7 teams in this district).
L’Anse and Manistique — Division 7 (enrollment 272-365), Region 25, District 49. Other district teams are Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, Traverse City St. Francis, Mancelona, Lake City and Roscommon.
Gwinn — Division 8 (enrollment 116-270), Region 29, District 57. Other district teams are Iron Mountain, Norway, Bark River-Harris, West Iron County, St. Ignace, Rogers City and East Jordan.
Munising, Superior Central and Newberry — 8-player Division 1. 42 teams statewide, with 32 making the playoffs. Other Upper Peninsula teams in this division are Brimley, Ontonagon, Pickford and Stephenson.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is email@example.com.
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
Mel Tucker’s success in his first season as Michigan State’s coach may be determined in large part by who is playing quarterback.
Right now, there’s no indication of who that’s going to be.
“We won’t be announcing a quarterback today,” Tucker said Tuesday, four days before the Spartans open the season against Rutgers. “There’s been furious competition at so many positions, including quarterback, and so as this week unfolds and a game plan is installed, we’ll make a decision, and then we’ll go play.”
Tucker took over after Mark Dantonio’s retirement in February, and he inherited a program rife with uncertainty after some mediocre results over the past four years. The quarterback spot is just one glaring area that must be resolved. Gone is Brian Lewerke, who started 38 games and became the school’s career leader in total offense.
Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day return after playing a bit last season. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne is also an option, and Tucker mentioned freshman Noah Kim as well when assessing the position.
Tucker also said he probably wouldn’t release a depth chart early this week, and he didn’t offer much detail when asked if the team might play more than one quarterback to start the season.
“We’re going to play who gives us the best chance to win,” he said.
Lombardi made three starts at quarterback in 2018 as a redshirt freshman, and he threw for 173 yards and a touchdown in a win over Rutgers that year. He attempted only 21 passes last season, however.
Day redshirted in 2018 and attempted just three passes in limited duty last year. Thorne is coming off a redshirt last year, and Kim is a true freshman.
“Those guys, that’s a really good group of guys, and Noah Kim has done a nice job for us. He’s got a lot of talent,” Tucker said. “Jay Johnson is a veteran offensive coordinator, a veteran play caller, a veteran quarterbacks coach — played the position himself. For Rocky, Peyton, Theo and Noah, those guys, the most important thing was really to connect with Jay and understand his process, understand how he sees that position being played, and then learning the scheme.”
Chemistry between the quarterback and the rest of the offense is also important.
“That’s definitely been a good process,” center Matt Allen said. “I would say the biggest thing that we just need to do is really just be on the same page, because when everybody’s on the same page, then everybody can go in the right direction and just do their job.”
EAST LANSING (AP) — Merritt Norvell Jr., the first Black athletic director at Michigan State, has died. He was 79.
A spokesman at the University of Nevada confirmed Wednesday that football coach Jay Norvell, who is Merritt Norvell’s son, took some time away from the team because of his father’s death. He left Reno on Monday to go to Michigan and was expected back either Wednesday night or this morning.
Norvell was appointed to Michigan State’s AD spot in 1995 and served until 1999.
“The thoughts of the entire Michigan State Athletics family are with the family and friends of Merritt Norvell,” said Bill Beekman, Michigan State’s current AD, in a statement.
Michigan State reached the Final Four in volleyball, hockey and men’s basketball during Norvell’s tenure.
Norvell graduated from Wisconsin in 1963 after playing on the team that reached that year’s Rose Bowl.
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
DETROIT — Forgive Detroit fans if they rolled their eyes after the Lions took an early 14-3 lead against Jacksonville. On too many occasions lately, those double-digit advantages have slipped away.
Not this time.
The Lions looked recharged after their open date, and on Sunday they did exactly what they needed to against a struggling Jacksonville team. Detroit took an early lead and held it, beating the Jaguars 34-16 in a game that offered some hope for the Lions as they began what looks like an easier stretch in their schedule.
Detroit was particularly impressive against the run — a problem area for the Lions. Jacksonville managed only 44 yards rushing. Detroit rookie D’Andre Swift had more than that on one play.
“I think they tried to step up to a challenge that we knew was going to be difficult against Jacksonville’s run game. I thought they executed well in those situations,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “We had some good fundamental plays on tape, which was nice — definitely some things that we had been working on the last couple weeks that showed up.”
The win was big for Patricia, who is in his third season and facing questions about the direction of the team. It’s hard to evaluate a victory against a weak opponent, but at the very least, this game was a reminder that it’s a long season and there’s plenty of time left.
“I think that’s good for everybody just to have a little bit of confidence in some of the things we were doing and be able to see it — and honestly see what I would call two weeks of work really show up in a game,” Patricia said. “I thought that was really great.”
Defensive end Romeo Okwara said the team needs to be consistent and can’t simply rely on momentum from one week to the next. However, there is certainly plenty for the Lions to be pleased with from last weekend.
“It gives us an opportunity to look back at what we did to succeed and how we can build on those things,” Okwara said.
After missing the first two games of this season, Kenny Golladay has made a consistent impact since returning. He caught a touchdown pass in each of his first two games back against Arizona and New Orleans — then had four receptions for 105 yards against the Jaguars.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Although Detroit was impressive against the run, the Lions allowed Keelan Cole to catch six passes for 143 yards. Detroit may still be vulnerable when facing the league’s better quarterbacks.
Swift ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns, and his 54-yard burst was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.
Swift got off to a rough start this season when he dropped what could have been the winning touchdown in the final seconds of the opener against Chicago. But he’s been fairly productive on the whole, ranking second on the team with 16 receptions and averaging 6.1 yards per rush.
Matt Prater’s accuracy from long distance has covered up a lot of problems for the Lions since they acquired him a few years ago. So it’s of some concern that he’s now 0 for 3 from 50 yards and beyond this season. Prater was 7 of 8 from that distance last season.
Prater missed from 57 yards Sunday, but remains perfect from inside 50 this season.
Patricia did not have an update on rookie defensive end Julian Okwara, who limped off the field Sunday with a leg injury.
31 — the number of different opponents Stafford has thrown a touchdown pass against. After a TD pass against Jacksonville, he’s thrown one against every team in the league except his own.
The Lions (2-3) go on the road again to face an Atlanta team coming off its first victory of the season. The Falcons (1-5) beat Minnesota 40-23, but this is a good chance for Detroit to reach .500.